It is difficult to look beyond Ireland and France as the principal contenders for this season’s Guinness Six Nations title.
The tournament’s most eagerly-awaited opener for years will unfold between the main two teams on a Friday night in Marseille – and everyone else could be playing catch-up from day one.
There will undoubtedly be many twists and turns along the way, but whichever team triumphs at Stade Velodrome can expect to be nailed on as Six Nations favourites.
In many ways, it should be no surprise given that Ireland are ranked second on World Rugby’s official rankings and France fourth, while Les Bleus won a Grand Slam in 2022 and Ireland replicated the feat last year.
Both teams will also be driven by memories of crushing World Cup disappointment. Backed in many quarters as possible winners, they made quarter-final exits with Ireland losing to New Zealand and France being toppled by South Africa.
Their recent dominance of European rugby cannot be understated, although the bid for silverware this time around takes place without talismanic figures.
Ireland no longer have imperious fly-half Johnny Sexton at the helm following his post-World Cup retirement, and his fellow former world player of the year – genial France scrum-half Antoine Dupont – is playing sevens in pursuit of a Paris Olympics dream.
Both absences will inevitably be felt, yet there is still comfortably sufficient squad depth for Ireland and France to remain a good furlong or two clear of the field.
They are not the only nations dealing with key losses, as retirements, injuries and tales of the unexpected have taken centre stage.
The pre-Six Nations headlines were dominated by Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit’s shock decision to quit rugby and target a career in American football.
It all unfolded during a frantic hour ahead of Wales head coach Warren Gatland’s Six Nations squad announcement, and Rees-Zammit was added to a list of absentees that included Test rugby retirees Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams, who is now based in Japan, and an injured trio of Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake.
England knew in late November that their World Cup skipper Owen Farrell would miss the Six Nations, having opted to take an international break as he prioritised his and his family’s mental wellbeing.
The Saracens fly-half has subsequently signed for French club Racing 92 on a two-year deal from July, which will extend his spell away from Test rugby as Rugby Football Union rules prevents players plying their trade abroad playing for England.
Outside of Farrell’s situation, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola – more than 300 England caps between them – have left the international stage, but a crop of exciting newcomers include Exeter wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Northampton fly-half Fin Smith and Sale’s Tom Roebuck.
England appear best-equipped to head the chasing pack, but like Wales and Scotland, who meet on the opening weekend in Cardiff, they will need to start strongly in a competition where momentum is key.
Italy, meanwhile, face a tall order to avoid finishing bottom of the pile for a ninth successive campaign, although they have a new head coach in Gonzalo Quesada and leading Italian club Benetton, who contribute 17 players in the national squad, have won seven out of nine United Rugby Championship games this season and hold second spot.